Have you ever thought about living exclusively off the land for an entire year? Likely not considering how much of our daily lives revolve around food. For those of us who garden, our passion can also provide food freedom through foraging and harvesting up a healthy bounty for our table. Even so, most of the foods we all eat are heavily-processed, have traveled thousands of miles, and generate a heaping helping of trash. These are the issues which weigh heavily on the mind of today’s guest, Rob Greenfield.
Rob doesn’t just talk the talk. He’s devoted the past several years really walking the walk in order to bringing greater attention to the issues of food insecurity, the overabundance of waste we generate, sustainability, and the importance of local community. I’ve been a follower of Rob’s environmental activism projects for several years, but it is the extreme lifestyle he’s been living this past year that I knew would be of particular interest to the gardening community of the joegardener audience. More on that coming up, but first, let me introduce you to Rob.
Developing Environmental Awareness
The average party guy in college, Rob didn’t set out to make an impact on anyone’s life besides his own. He had the standard, materially-focused American Dreams. In his mid-20s, he began to watch a lot of documentaries and read a lot of books. The information he took in from both began to saturate the way he looked at life.
He realized that nearly every action he took in his daily life was monetized and contributing to the destruction of the planet as well as all the living things we share it with. Around the same time, Rob moved to San Diego and built a social group of people who were more interested in the healthy lifestyle to which he was becoming drawn.
Ongoing self-examination led Rob to determine to live a life with more purpose, and he didn’t start small. In 2011, he married his love of travel with the hope of inspiring others to rethink their lifestyle. He set for himself the challenging goal of crossing America by bicycle while carrying with him all the garbage he would generate.
As if that weren’t ambitious enough, he also committed to what he calls living sustainability to the extreme – avoiding any negative impact on the environment throughout the trip. That meant, among other things, no packaged foods. On a bike made of bamboo, Rob set off from San Francisco determined to eat only foods which were unprocessed, local and organic.
Rob procured food from farmers or gardeners as he came across them mile by mile, but that wasn’t always an option. Out of necessity and since his consumption of it wouldn’t negatively impact the environment, he relied heavily on food waste. Our society wastes so much food that Rob discovered dumpster diving offered more than he needed.
Over the course of his journey, 70% of his diet came from grocery store dumpsters. In spite of eating food from more than 2,000 dumpsters, Rob never became sick – except from overeating. More often than not, the food waste was as good as anything we might buy. Sometimes, it was so good and there was so much that he would gorge himself. He even found juice on ice on a number of occasions.
City by city, Rob documented the bounty of food being thrown out in hopes it would encourage a new way of thinking. Everything that is thrown away could be redistributed, fed to chickens or other livestock, or – at a minimum – composted. These realizations solidified Rob’s commitment to environmental activism.
He followed up with two more cross-country bike tours. The first in 2014 was called the Do Good Tour with a focus on planting gardens and spreading wildflower seeds along the way. Next up was a group tour. He and 30 then-strangers met in New York City’s Central Park and rode together to Seattle, volunteering at community gardens and planting about 100 fruit trees across America.
The Trash Man Cometh
Rob’s next endeavor, the Trash Man Project, highlighted another national problem. The average American generates about 4½ pounds of trash every day. Pause to consider that and how much it adds up to over the course of a month, a year, etc. It’s a staggering statistic.
Why isn’t this issue receiving more attention? Well, it’s largely because of the system we’ve created for handling it all. At least once a week, garbage trucks stop at most American households to take the trash away, and out of sight means out of mind.
So, Rob wanted to bring the garbage back into collective view. He decided to live like the average American and wear all the trash he generated for one month. Without telling anyone what he was doing, Rob wore his daily trash on his body and walked the streets of New York City.
Each day, he continued adding his own trash. By the end of a month, he was wearing 87 pounds of garbage – for hours every day. It didn’t take long for people to begin to ask him why he was covered in trash. Rob never declared his opposition to consumerism or spoke of how wasteful we are as a society. Instead, he would tell those who asked that he was living like the average American and wearing the trash that was left over. The visual spoke for itself.
A Focus on Food
A lot of that trash is generated through our food choices. It was obvious to Rob that food is the center of our lives and one of the greatest opportunities for change. The abundance and convenience of the over-processed foods of our modern society does more than add to our landfills. It leads us to consume what Rob calls food-like substances instead of eating real food.
Even our healthy or whole food options tend to be resource hogs. In fact, the average American meal travels about 1,500 miles from farm to fork.
With all of that in mind, Rob began growing his own food in 2013. He also became aware of the bounty of food that is often all around us, just waiting to be discovered. Our wild spaces and even the public spaces of our urban landscapes are abundant with food-producing plants.
As his awareness of local food resources grew, Rob set a new goal – to grow or forage all of his food for one year. He called it the Food Freedom Project – a year in which he would consume nothing processed or packaged. For 365 days, every aspect of his diet would come from what he had grown or gathered.
He realized that location would play a big role in the success of such an ambitious goal. So in 2017, he chose Orlando as his home base, because the mild Florida climate supports a wide variety of fruits and other edible plants all year long.
At this stage in his life, Rob had earned a permaculture design certificate and had a little bit of gardening experience. Yet, there was a lot he had to learn about even the most basic gardening principles – like light and moisture requirements. Never one to be deterred, Rob dove into research and preparation. He visited farms and existing gardens, gathered cuttings, bought seeds, and built a makeshift greenhouse for seed starting.
Rob had never lived in Orlando and knew very few people there. During an earlier visit, he had met the pastor of a church who was involved in a community gardening project known as Fleet Farming gardens. He stayed with her for the first four months after his move and, during that time, transformed her front yard into a food garden.
He struck up connections with others in the neighborhood and offered to transform their front yards too. The homeowner could harvest all they wanted, and it would provide Rob a source of food to support his project.
The freedom to garden in front yard space isn’t always accepted by local governments or HOAs. Fortunately in Orlando, one couple had fought the city over that restriction and won. Over the course of about five years, regulations evolved to allow for up to 100% of front yard space to be devoted to growing food. This forward-thinking is one of the reasons that Rob chose Orlando for his project.
Rob needed more than food. He needed a home base, and one homeowner agreed to let him set up a tiny house in her unused backyard. She had dreamt of living sustainably, so he built systems for composting and harvesting rainwater which would achieve that goal for the both of them.
Ten months after arriving in Orlando, Rob had the infrastructure in place to begin the Food Freedom Project. Not all of his plans would have received the blessing of city government. His tiny house, for example, was illegal by city standards. Foraging in most city parks is also against the law. So, Rob took the don’t ask permission/beg forgiveness approach.
I interviewed Rob just over two weeks from the end of his Food Freedom Project year. Those 50 weeks had made him acutely aware of just how challenging it is to live off the Food Grid and how hard gardening organically can sometimes be.
The bulk of his daily calories came from sweet potatoes, yucca, cassava, peas, beans, and foraged fruit. Fishing provided some protein as well. Rob kept a hive of honeybees and harvested his salt from the ocean. The only oil he had available was what he could make himself from foraged coconuts. He didn’t take any purchased vitamins or medication. Everything he put into his mouth he had grown, harvested or foraged for himself.
By his own stringent set of rules, Rob couldn’t purchase anything from a grocery store or restaurant. He was also not allowed to eat food someone else had bought or prepared – no snacking at a friend’s house.
Rob certainly experienced cravings for the foods he couldn’t have. The year had been a roller coaster of highs and lows, both physically and emotionally. He also learned that the whole foods lifestyle comes with a long and time-consuming To-Do list.:
- pest management
Just preparing and cleaning up a whole food meal takes longer. There’s no popping something into the microwave or one-pot meals. It wasn’t unusual for Rob to be up until the wee hours of the night dealing with some aspect of food.
Lessons of Living Off the Land
Time may have been an issue, but diversity certainly wasn’t. During the course of the year, Rob grew over 100 different foods and foraged over 200 varieties.
He followed all organic practices, applying the same principles to his garden as he did to his own food consumption. Fertilizer came from compost and rabbit manure. Pest and disease control was largely manual.
In the heat and humidity of Florida, it doesn’t take long for the garden to go from order to disorder. Rob noticed that many gardeners tend to focus on what isn’t working – which crops are failing or being attacked by pests. He realized how much more successful he could be by focusing on what was working.
If one crop was bountiful and ignored by pests, Rob planted more of that and removed anything that was being hit hard by disease. Since he was growing 50 or more varieties of plants at once, any damage that did occur was minimal in the big picture.
Most pests and diseases tend to have plant preferences. So rather than grouping plant varieties, Rob minimized the spread of issues by interspersing various crops together. He also made smart plant choices early on, basing his success around the experiences of other gardeners. During his 10-month research period, he had asked locals what grew easily and abundantly.
Rob had also researched varieties that were native to the area, since they would be most adapted for success there. One example was the Seminole pumpkin. The Seminole Indians had grown it in the Orlando area for hundreds of years, and that regional adaptability meant that Rob harvested over 200 Seminole pumpkins.
Lessons for Every Gardener
Through the Food Freedom Project, Rob wanted to inspire others to rethink their food choices. Along the way, he learned important lessons about gardening too.
He never tilled any of the garden spaces he helped to create, and he never added any liquid or chemical fertilizers. He prepared garden areas with a layer of mulch about 12” thick over a layer of cardboard. Those materials decomposed over the course of about a year and helped to turn native Florida sand into productive soil. He also planted directly into mushroom compost that Rob got from a local mushroom grower.
Rob’s gardening efforts were successful, but he realized his need for fast results led to short-term thinking. In hindsight, he noticed the soil was being depleted and recognized his plants would have been even healthier and more productive had he invested more effort toward soil preparation and development.
Rob also learned that his project couldn’t have been successful without community. No man is an island, as they say. Living off the land is hard. He hopes that other gardeners will be inspired by his project and take steps to combine skills.
From the mushroom growers who provided him with mushroom compost to the rabbit farmer who shared rabbit manure, there were plenty of people along the way to help Rob live this stringent lifestyle.
Maybe you have a specialty that you can exchange with others. Do you know someone who keeps bees or enjoys growing grains? Do you have a gardening friend whose tomato crop is overwhelming each season? By sharing our resources, we can achieve more together.
If our communities made an effort to work together, it would go a long way toward reducing dependence on foods that are processed or shipped long distances.
Hitting the Road Again
After a year of whole food living, you might expect that Rob was ready to satisfy a craving for some modern-day processed meal, like pizza or a hamburger. Instead, he was considering spending the first day fasting. He was healthier and happier near the end of the Food Freedom year than he had been when he began. So, he felt it might be wise to practice another day of self-control before he re-entered the world of modern-day temptation. Like I said earlier, Rob really walks the walk.
What is a certainty for his future is a heavy travel schedule. During the next year or so, Rob will be on a world tour to speak about his experiences and share potential solutions for solving our environmental problems.
He’ll also be visiting food forests and gardens across the globe, writing and producing videos to continue highlighting the importance of rethinking how our society provides and consumes food.
He’s also beginning to formulate a Food Freedom Project Round 2. He recognizes that the bounty of mild Orlando played a big role in his success. Not one to rest on those laurels, Rob wants to try the project again where winter will impact food availability. Stay tuned for that.
Be sure to listen to my conversation with Rob by clicking the Play icon in the green bar under the title of this page. There are more stories from his experiences that will have you looking at your garden and lifestyle in a new light.
Links & Resources
joegardener Online Academy: Master Pests, Diseases, and Weeds – Just $47 for lifetime access! Watch for my new course on seed starting coming soon!